Friday, May 28, 2021

Defending (Not Defunding) the Police in “Beverly Hills Cop”

We’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. Floyd’s murder under the knee of a Minneapolis cop has rightly led to impassioned public discourse about the role of policing in African-American communities. It’s no accident, at this particular moment in history, that so many of our major recent films – like Judas and the Black Messiah – have had something to say about the fraught connection between law enforcement and America’s Black citizenry. On television, such powerful shows as 2019’s When They See Us miniseries have zeroed in on the police role in demonizing innocent people of color.

 But on the anniversary of Floyd’s death I yearned to watch something a bit lighter. Which is how I happened to queue up my TV to an oldie, 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. The film has everything to do with the outrageous charms of Eddie Murphy, in the leading role of Axel Foley. But this was not a case (like Coming to America) of the film being a Murphy product from the start. It began as an action thriller that at one time was supposed to star Mickey Rourke. When Sylvester Stallone came aboard, the blood quotient was ramped up, and so was the budget. But then producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made a major pivot to Eddie Murphy, who’d done well with comedies like 48 Hours and Trading Places. Suddenly the script’s renegade cop was not only a brilliant but independent-minded detective but also a major wise-ass, with a foul-mouthed quip for every occasion. The end result is an undercover police officer from a grungy Detroit precinct who shows up in Beverly Hills, supposedly on vacation but really to search (over the objections of his superiors) for the man behind the killing of a childhood buddy.

 Beverly Hills plays itself, in all of its SoCal patrician glory. As someone who grew up in neighboring West L.A., just over the city line, I can attest to the authenticity of the Spanish-inflected civic buildings, the swanky boutiques, and the hordes of well-tanned sidewalk strollers, all of them dressed to impress. (It’s amusing, though, to see Foley enter the Beverly Wilshire Hotel—a distinguished hostelry in the heart of Beverly Hills—and then cross the lobby of Downtown L.A.’s equally historic Biltmore, where he cons a desk clerk into giving him a suite for the price of a single room.)

 Critics as well as audiences loved Murphy’s live-wire performance. In Time magazine, critic Richard Schickel wrote that Murphy “exuded the kind of cheeky, cocky charm that has been missing from the screen since [Jimmy] Cagney was a pup, snarling his way out of the ghetto."  Cagney, of course, scored big in the 1930s as an overgrown dead-end kid, one whose bravado exceeded even his talent for larceny. Murphy may be on the right side of the law, but he violates local rules and mores at every turn. In the oh-so-polite Beverly Hills police station, he pummels codes of conduct non-stop. As Schickel notes, he’s “ghetto” in his sassy rejection of the status quo . . . but there’s absolutely no overt racism to be seen in the way he’s approached either by fellow cops or civilians. Some of them may not like him much, but no one says (or even THINKS) the “N word.” And by the ending, of course, everyone but the bad guys is thoroughly on his side. Welcome to Neverneverland!

 A word in passing on Eddy Donno, whose spectacular driving in the film won him a Stuntman Award. Well-deserved, and a big step up from his Roger Corman days.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

On Olympian Heights: Remembering Olympia Dukakis

Through most of my moviegoing life, I’d never heard of Olympia Dukakis.  But the New York stage veteran, born in 1931,  made her first film in 1964. It was called Twice a Man, and she appeared in the credits as “Young mother.” It seems to have been her fate to play mother roles. In the course of a long career that ended with her recent death at age 89, she was credited as  “John’s mother” in John and Mary, “Gig’s mother” in Made for Each Other, and “Joey’s mom” in The Wanderers. She also often showed up in authority roles, as judges, doctors, and a Mother Superior, as well as a high school principal in Mr. Holland’s Opus. But of course the role that made her, belatedly, a star was that of Cher’s feisty Italian mother in 1987’s Moonstruck. Rose Castorini is a nurturer, a pragmatist, and a philosopher, one who knows what it’s like to be hurt by love. She’s memorably relieved when daughter Loretta announces she’s about to marry a man she doesn’t love. Says Rose, glaring at her straying husband Cosmo: “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.” Fortunately for Dukakis, she herself had a long-lasting marriage with a fellow actor, Louis Zorich, that produced three children and four grandchildren. So she came by her mom-credentials honestly indeed.

 One of the things I most appreciate about Olympia Dukakis is that she always played intelligent women. Some of them might have done foolish things from time to time, but they were never dumb. Another thing I savor is the fact that she happily took on ethnic roles, giving them spirit and authenticity. As in Moonstruck, she made a great Italian mama, which was doubtless why she was cast as the unstoppable Dolly Sinatra in a 1992 miniseries about son Frank. And she was a convincing Jewish widow in The Cemetery Club. Curiously, despite her very Greek name and heritage, she rarely got the chance to portray her own ethnicity. She’s nowhere to be found in the cast list of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the semi-autobiographical 2002 film by Nia Vardalos that found much of its initial popularity in Greek-American communities. She does, however, have the classical role of Jocasta in Woody Allen’s comic take on Greek mythology, Mighty Aphrodite.

 In her later years, Dukakis took on challenging roles (like that of a trans landlady in the TV series Tales of the City and a so-called “butch lesbian” in Cloudburst). She was outspoken in promoting women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, and also stayed active as a well-loved drama teacher, both at NYU and in other theatre programs across the nation. A 2018 documentary film, called simply Olympia, chronicled her eventful life, including her growing-up years in a Massachusetts immigrant household, facing anti-Greek prejudice and a patriarchal family structure. Her parents certainly had a flair for names: her younger brother, Apollo Dukakis, is an actor I’ve enjoyed often on California stages.

 Once I’d fallen in love with Dukakis in the delightful yet poignant Moonstruck, I was rooting for her to take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. And she did. When the elegantly clad Dukakis mounted the stage, I was rather surprised that her speech was gracious but also somewhat sedate. I’d expected something more rambunctious from her, especially since it was well known that her cousin, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was the Democratic candidate for President. But once she’d finished with her thank-yous, she confirmed my expectations by letting out a rip-roaring yell: “OK, Michael, let’s go!”